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review 2018-06-17 11:07
An ultra-noir novel for lovers of beautiful writing and dark subjects that probe the human psyche
Return to Hiroshima - Bob van Laerhoven

Thanks to the author for providing me a paperback copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Baudelaire’s Revenge some time ago and I was fascinated and intrigued by it, so I did not think twice when the author told me he had published a new novel. Van Laerhoven’s work has won awards, been translated into several languages, and he has a unique voice that stays with the reader long after finishing the book. I don’t mean the stories and the plots of his books are not interesting (they are fascinating), but the way he writes about the historical period his stories are set in, and the characters he follows and analyses are distinct and unforgettable. His words are, at once, poetic and harsh, and they perfectly convey both, the utmost beauty and the extremes of cruelty and dejection that can be found in human beings.

When I reread my previous review, while I was preparing to write this one, I realised that much of what I had written there (apart from the specifics about the plot and the characters) applied also to this book. The author once more writes historical fiction, although this time it is closer to our era. The main action takes place in Japan in 1995, although, as the title might make us suspect, the story also goes back to 1945 (and even before) and towards the end of the book we have scenes set in that period, with all that involves.

The story is mostly narrated in the third person from the points of view of a variety of characters, a police inspector (who has to investigate the murder of a baby, a strange attack at a bank with a large number of casualties, and a bizarre assault on a tourist), a female photographer, a young man and a young woman members of a strange sect, a strange man/God/demon (who is more talked about than actually talking, although we get access to his memories at some point). There are also fragments narrated by a woman, who is in hiding when we first meet her, and whose identity and mental state will keep readers on tenterhooks.

Apart from the mystery elements and from the bizarre events, which at first seem disconnected but eventually end up by linking all the characters, I noticed some common themes. Families, family relationships, and in particular relationships between fathers and sons and daughters, take centre stage. The inspector’s search for his father and how that affects his life, the young woman’s relationship with her father, at the heart of the whole plot, the photographer’s relationship with her father, another famous photographer, and her attempts at finding her own identity as an artist… While some characters seem totally amoral (perhaps because they believe they are beyond usual morality), others are trying to deal with their guilt for things that they did or did not do. Some of the characters might feel too alien for readers to empathise with, but others experience emotions and feelings fully recognisable, and we feel sad for some of them at the end, but relieved for others. The claustrophobic and pressured atmosphere running against the background of the atomic bomb and its aftermath are perfectly rendered and help give the story an added layer of tension and depth.

This is a book of extremes and not an easy read. Although the language used is lyrical and breath-taking at times, there are harsh scenes and cruel behaviours described in detail (rape, drug use, torture, violence), so I would not recommend it to people who prefer to avoid such kinds of reading. I’ve seen it described as horror, and although it does not easily fit in that genre, in some ways it is far more unsettling and scarier than run-of-the-mill horror. This novel probes the depths of the human psyche and its darkest recesses, and you’ll follow the author there at your own peril.

I wanted to share some samples I highlighted that should not provide any spoilers for those thinking about reading it:

Books protected me from reality. I remember them as a choir of pale shapes, sometimes hysterical, other times comforting, vividly prophetic, or disquieting, like a piano being played in the dark. I’ve always been convinced that stories influence the mind: they haunt regions of the brain where reason has lost its way.

This one I find particularly relevant to this book (and I think most writers would know perfectly well what it’s getting at):

“Writers are like God. They love their characters, but take pleasure in the suffering they put them through. They torment themselves through the puppets they create and in the midst of the torment they discover a sort of rage, the rage you need to create. There’s a lot of sadomasochism in the universe and literature has its own fair share.”

Here, one of the characters talks about how she feels when she is depressed:

Her malady gave her the impression that the buildings and the people she saw were nothing more than pixels of energy bundled together by an insane artist who could shift around the worlds inside him like pieces of chess.

This ‘ultra-noir’ novel, as the blurb aptly describes it, is an extraordinary read, but is not a book for somebody looking for a typical genre thriller with slightly twisted characters. This is far darker than most of the thrillers I’ve read. But don’t let that put you off. As I said in my previous review of another one of the author’s novels, ‘if you’re looking for a complex and challenging historical novel and don´t shrink from dark subjects, this is a pretty unique book.’

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review 2018-05-30 19:57
The Body Library - Jeff Noon
The Body Library - Jeff Noon

[...]a novel is a labyrinth; a labyrinth is a novel. That's a truth well hidden behind conventional narrative. But a certain kind of reader, we believed, would relish the challenge of this new book.

 

Well, Jeff Noon's The Body Library is by no means the most labyrinthine novel I've read, although it has a maze in form of a high-rise; nor is it the most challenging. It is, however, a satisfying genre-bender, offering a compelling mystery and some smart meta-discussion about stories and storytelling.

 

The year is 1959. After the events in A Man of Shadows, private eye John Nyquist has found shelter in the town of Storyville. Just like the name suggests, Storyville is a city made of many tales, supervised by the Narrative Council, which is situated at Kafka Court, because of course it is. Nyquists own story starts when he wakes up next to a dead man – a man he apparently has killed himself. The circumstances of this murder are quite mysterious, as the dead man has been the subject matter of Nyquist's latest investigation. Still confused, Nyquists begins to investigate the strange high-rise where he woke up and meets a woman, Zelda, a prostitute hired by the recently deceased. Soon both find themselves the target of other occupants. A man with a face of scars is looking for answers Nyquist can't give, a young boy is not as harmless as he seems, and something in the high-rise seems to be casting a spell. Nyquist and Zelda can get away, but lose all memory of what exactly happened to them. Soon after, Zelda winds up dead. It looks like suicide, but Nyquists suspects murder and pledges to find Zelda's killer. Meanwhile, the Narrative Council comes knocking and wants some information about a certain body in a certain high-rise... And that's really just the start of it.

 

Noon described The Body Library as an example of Avantgarde Pulp. It's a detective story in close embrace with the uncanny. I found it a more successful endeavour than it's predecessor. Nyquist second adventure is at the same time more and less classic noir, offering a stronger plot and stronger ties between plot and surrealism. Maybe it helped to finally have a sense of time: The events take place in an alternative 1959, something I didn't get from A Man of Shadows (it's possible I just missed it, but I don't think the year was ever mentioned in that book). The Body Library is also more Noonian (and if this isn't a word, it totally should be).

 

The hardboiled detective tropes are all in place, but convincingly executed: Nyquist is still the epitome of the noir private eye, taciturn, melancholy and into the ladies, and spends a good deal of the book being beaten up (and worse). But he gains some personality. His prime feature is his stubbornness: Once he's committed to a task, he just won't let go. Of course, a pulp story also needs a dame, some goons, an enigmatic femme who could be fatale. Star of the show is the city itself though, Storyville, where every life is a tale and every tale is alive, where the novelists spin stories and the taletellers deliver verbal accounts of adventures great and small, where whisper poets whisper and shadowy agencies specialise in erasure. In such a setting, it's no great surprise – and no spoiler – that the core of the mystery is a book, the titular The Body Library, and that its mystery is tied to avantgarde techniques of storytelling - like the cut-up technique, of which the title is just the first example.

 

Creating atmosphere and unforgettable pictures has always been Noon's strong suite, and here he delivers again. The Body Library is ripe with vivid images, from bodies crawling with words to glowing Alphabugs to pages seeping blood (here you can find a few pictures by Alex Storer inspired by this book. I think they complement it quite well). A story about stories is bound to become incredibly meta, and Noon uses this to great effect, too. He incorporates myths and legends and some nods to his older works; places wear the names of great writers and poets, the Narrative Council is a neat addition that Kafka would be proud of, and while seeing characters discussing their own fictionality is not entirely new, I find it always entertaining. And thus the book left me excited for whatever adventure Nyquist encounters next.

 

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review 2018-05-15 15:37
A Man of Shadows - Jeff Noon
A Man of Shadows (Nyquist Mystery) - Jeff Noon

A city of light, everlasting day, burning brightly before your eyes.

A city of unending night, vacant starlight twinkling in the black.

The dusk inbetween, reaching out with foggy fingers.

A man, a girl, a murderer, and time tick-tick-ticking away.

 

 

 

So, Jeff Noon is writing New Weird now. And it's weird, but Jeff Noon writing New Weird is decidedly less weird than Jeff Noon not writing New Weird. There's not one mention of Robos having sex with Dogs, for instance.

 

A Man of Shadows is almost all atmosphere, with very little story or character development getting in the way. Nyquist is the most generic of all generic noir detectives, strung along by circumstances, with hardly any agenda of his own. The girl, her father, the murderer, everybody else? Hardly there, shadows indeed. Events unfold slowly, ever so slowly, far too slowly to say if they make even the tinies lick of sense in the end. Probably not.

Now, Noon is very, very good at creating atmosphere. Dayzone, Nocturna, and the Dusk build the vivid background for some tremendous set-pieces. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I've read all of this already, and better. Not only in various works of noir and hard-boiled; Nyquist train-ride through the Dusk reads like something that Stephen King discarded from The Mist. And I haven't read much Miéville - I can't say how this here relates to The City and The City for instance; I've read enough to know that both books use the concept of „unseeing“, and enough to suspect Miélville outmatches Noon when it comes to combining atmosphere with an actual story.

 

A Man of Shadows isn't bad by any means; I just think it would work much better on screen than on page.

 

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review 2018-04-07 06:30
Blood Noir: Anita Blake #16
Blood Noir - Laurell K. Hamilton

Once upon a time I loved this series. Then it changed, and I drifted along hoping it would change back, and eventually I rage quit the series entirely. Now here I am several years later, and I found myself wanting to revisit the series. Rather than going back and reading old favorites I decided to forge ahead since this book promised to feature my favorite side character. I figured if I went into things with my expectations adjusted it might be okay. And it mostly was.

 

I actually enjoyed returning to this world, and hanging out with a few of my favorite characters of yore. Is it the series it used to be? Not at all. But since I knew that going in it wasn't a disappointment. I will say this book actually had a plot, and conversations, and not just sex, so that helped. It didn't hurt that the menagerie of lovers and characters were all left at home as Anita and Jason go off on their own. Narrowing it down kept things on track. All in all this was the fast fun read I needed right now. Anita might have morphed from a kick ass executioner into a steamy succubus, but knowing that from the start meant it didn't lose any points for me.

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review 2018-03-21 20:08
A Nordic noir thriller with two fascinating protagonists, D.I. Hulda Hermannsdóttir and Iceland.
The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

Thanks to NetGalley and to Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve followed with interest the rise in popularity of the Nordic/ Scandinavian Thrillers in recent years, although I have read random titles rather than becoming a dedicated fan of any single writer. (I’ve also watched quite a few of the crime TV series produced in those countries and I’ve particularly enjoyed Wallander, The Bridge, and The Killing). This is the first novel I read by Ragnar Jónasson, although I suspect it won’t be the last.

The novel contains some familiar elements, although with interesting variations. The main character, Hulda, a Detective Inspector, that works in Reykjavík, is 64 and on her way to retirement. She is surprised by the news that this retirement has been brought forward, and, as an afterthought to keep her quiet, her boss tells her she can work on a cold case of her choice. She chooses the apparent suicide of a Russian girl, an asylum seeker because she mistrusts the lead investigator. The novel, written in the third person, mostly from Hulda’s point of view, follows her last three days in the force. I say mostly because there are other fragments that are told from other characters’ points of view, although at first, it is not that clear who they are. We come to understand how they relate to the main story later, but I must clarify that they are clearly distinct, easy to follow, and do not cause any confusion. They do provide additional information, a different perspective, and they help us understand the story and the characters more fully (and yes, they might also mislead us a tiny bit), although I suspect some readers might catch on faster than others as to their true relevance.

Hulda is a known standard of the genre: the old detective forced to leave the job that is determined to solve one last case before retirement. Only, in this case, she is a woman, and she does reflect on how difficult things have been for her because she is a woman, glass ceiling and all. She does share some of the other attributes sometimes typical of these characters: she is very good but not that very well liked; she has to work alone because she is not a favourite among the other detectives; she resents her younger boss and many of her teammates; she is effective but might bend the rules slightly; she is reserved and has suffered tragedies in her life… The author is very good at creating a very compelling character and then making us question our judgment. At least in my case, I really liked Hulda to begin with, but after a while, I realised that she might be one of those favourites of mine, an unreliable narrator (or, although not directly a narrator, her point of view is unreliable). She makes decisions that are morally questionable; she drinks a bit too much; and well… I am keeping my mouth shut. My feelings for this character went from really liking her, to not being so sure, to not liking her very much, and then… This change in opinion and perception is cleverly achieved and extremely well done, and it reminded me of books like We Need to Talk about Kevin (not the story itself, but the way the writer slowly makes us empathise with a character to later pull the rug from under our feet).

The story is dark in more ways than one. As I said, there are morally grey areas (or even quite dark): the subject matter and the fact that a young asylum seeker and her death are not considered important and have been all but forgotten a year down the line (unfortunately that rings true), Hulda’s own life and the secrets she keeps, and Iceland. Although there is not a great deal of violence (and definitely not explicit), there is a certain unsettling air and a cold and menacing atmosphere, that comes in part from Hulda’s paranoia and her personality (suspicious and mistrustful), but goes beyond it. The setting is very important and it contributes to the story and its effect on the reader. Iceland is a character in its own right. The descriptions of the many locations in the book create a picture in the reader’s mind and help understand how important the place is to the mood, the characters, and their way of life. A place where light and darkness rule people’s lives, and where the inhabitants have adapted to conditions many of us would find difficult and hostile. The title is apt for many reasons (as we learn as we read on). It is a noir novel, where nobody is exactly as they appear at first, and where red herrings, false clues, and side-stories muddy the storyline, adding layers of complexity to what appears straightforward, at first.

The writing is fluid, and versatile, providing different registers and clearly distinct voices for the different aspects of the story and the varied points of view, and although it is a translation, it is well-written and the style fits in perfectly the content. It is not the usual fast-paced thriller, but one that builds up tension and organically incorporates the psychology of the characters and the setting into the story.

A couple of examples:

Time was like a concertina: one minute compressed, the next stretching out interminably.

‘She’s being deported. It happens. You know, it’s a bit like those games of musical chairs you play as a kid. The music starts, everyone gets up and walks in a circle and when the music stops, one of the chairs is taken away and someone’s unlucky.’

The ending… I will not talk in detail about it but although perhaps not unexpected, is a bit of a shocker.

A great (and not long) novel for lovers of Nordic thrillers, or anybody who enjoys thrillers that deviate from the norm. I’d also recommend it to anybody intrigued by Iceland and unreliable narrators. And I’d also recommend it to authors always intrigued by other authors’ technique and voice. I intend to keep reading the series. And enjoying it.

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